Slower walking pace may increase risk of death from COVID-19, study finds

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Experts say poor physical fitness is a risk factor that can increase coronavirus severity

Several recent studies have highlighted the benefits associated with walking and staying active. Now, researchers from the University of Leicester have found that walking pace may be an indicator of COVID-19 mortality risk. 

According to the team, having a slower walking pace increased the risk of a more severe reaction -- and death -- from COVID-19. While earlier studies have found that a higher body mass index (BMI) increases the risks associated with the coronavirus, the researchers found that fitness played a larger role than weight in this report. 

“We know already that obesity and frailty are key risk factors for COVID-19 outcomes,” said researcher Tom Yates. “This is the first study to show that slow walkers have a much higher risk of contracting severe COVID-19 outcomes, irrespective of their weight.

“With the pandemic continuing to put unprecedented strain on health care services and communities, identifying individuals at greatest risk and taking preventative measures to protect them is crucial,” he added. 

Protective benefits of a faster pace

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from more than 412,000 participants enrolled in the U.K. Biobank dataset. This allowed the team to look at the participants’ health outcomes related to COVID-19, their BMIs, and their walking paces based on self reports. 

The study revealed that having a slower walking pace, regardless of weight, impacted the severity of COVID-19 and increased the risk of death. 

Participants with obesity and a faster pace had a lower mortality risk and were less likely to contract severe cases of COVID-19. Conversely, the risk of death was nearly four times higher for participants of normal weight but slower walking pace; this group was also nearly three times as likely to experience more severe viral symptoms. 

“Fast walkers have been shown to generally have good cardiovascular health, making them more resilient to external stressors, including viral infection but this hypothesis has not yet been established for infectious diseases,” said Yates. 

Based on these findings, the researchers recommend that walking pace be considered as one of the risk factors associated with COVID-19 mortality risk. 

“It is my view that ongoing public health and research surveillance studies should consider incorporating simple measures of physical fitness such as self-reported walking pace in addition to BMI, as potential risk predictors of COVID-19 outcomes that could ultimately enable better prevention methods that save lives,” Yates said. 

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